Design by Marty Smith
Trying to be funny is like driving a car. Everybody does it, and we don't think about how dangerous it is until something goes wrong. Bad humor doesn't end lives, but it can kill your chances of getting a date or selling the video game you convinced at least 10 companies to invest in. One of the trickier aspects of engineering humor is that on one hand, people's ideas about what's actually funny change with the times. Would Reservoir Dogs or Booty Call be even remotely funny to your grandmother? Likewise, if you're younger than 40, is there any reason to believe Bob Hope's comedy sketches would make you laugh? On the other hand, some of the best humor is timeless. Monty Python's The Life of Brian and Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb are older than a good percentage of GameSpot's readers, and yet their humor still works today.
What we've learned from talking with two game designers (including Double Fine's Tim Shafer), a game industry executive, a comic store owner, a game writer, and a Hollywood game agent is that creating amusing characters and scenarios in any medium requires precision tuning, just like a guitar. If one string is off, the whole thing sounds rickety. Early games with rudimentary 8-bit characters and minimal voice-over relied on a technique comic artists, such as Scott McCloud, have known for years. McCloud's books, Understanding Comics and its sequel, Reinventing Comics, are known for having deconstructed the medium so that it would make sense to someone who's never even picked up a comic. In an early chapter, McCloud shows a smiling face with a circle for a head, two dots for eyes, and a straight line for a mouth, illustrating that as simple as this image is, it looks like a human face. "When you look at a photo or a realistic drawing of a face," he writes, "you see it as the face of another. But when you enter the world of the cartoon, you see yourself." His theory is that the smiling-face drawing, which doesn't have specific features or characteristics, creates a "universal identification." This universal identification, he writes, is an empty shell that allows us to "travel in another realm."
We become the cartoon, McCloud argues, just as we became Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, and even Mario in his earliest form. These characters are funny, too. If you bat an Atari joystick quickly from left to right, Pac-Man looks confused as he turns from side to side, and that's funny. When early Mario falls great distances, that's funny. When the Frogger frog leaps away from the snake in the middle divide, he looks frantic, and that's funny. When a player, as the frog, panics and jumps onto an alligator log, into an alligator mouth, and then back out quickly to safety, only to splat into the side of the screen, these moves are hysterical because the player has become the frog. A more realistic-looking frog would not be as funny.
The humor bar has been raised in recent years with fully articulated, lifelike 3D game characters with their own personalities and identifiable features. We associate with these characters as other people that we control, not as ourselves. Characters like Duke Nukem want to tell us what's funny. They have lines and quirks and temperaments all their own. If our own humorous sensibilities do not match those of a particular character, the game may not be funny to us in the way the designers intended.
While it was not our intention to include every funny or not-so-funny game ever made, we've pulled together some of the best examples of successful and unsuccessful attempts at humor over the years, as culled from the GameSpot staff and our crew of comedy experts mentioned above--each with strong opinions on what makes a game funny (or not). If you have a suggestion for a future addition to our funniest games section (Make Me Laugh), or our weakest attempts at humor section (Class Clowns), please e-mail us. Include the category, the name of the game, and what you think was so gosh darn funny or lame about it.